ACEHUCHE, Spain – It’s hours before dawn in Acehuche, a small town in Spain’s western Extremadura region, and a group of young people end a parade by setting off fireworks and beating drums.
The noise wakes locals up for some of the biggest dates on the local calendar: the three-day celebration of the furry characters known as “Carantoñas” who look like wild beasts.
With roots in pagan fertility traditions that have been incorporated into religious symbolism, the ancient holiday currently marks the patron saint of Acehuche, Saint Sebastian, whom Catholic tradition regards as a martyr of the early anti-Christian Romans.
After the 2021 edition was canceled amid a sharp rise in coronavirus cases, the festival went ahead at the end of January this year. It was held under strict mask-wearing rules due to the record number of infections across Spain fueled by the highly contagious omicron variant.
Following tradition, women dress up as “Regaoras” in colorful embroidered skirts and shawls, decorating intricate hairstyles with flowers, while a few dozen men gather in a garage to cover themselves in skins and furs of animals to turn into “Carantoñas”.
The handmade costumes can weigh over 20 kilograms (44 pounds) and only male revelers over the age of 16 are allowed to wear them.
On the second day of the celebration, as the image of San Sebastian is carried in procession on rosemary-covered sidewalks, the “Carantoñas” bow before the patron saint and the “Regaoras” cover the sculpture with confetti while traditional songs are sung. and the drums are played.
“All the songs we play have been recovered by oral tradition,” said Jaime Garrido, one of the musicians. “Some are common songs in the region and some are specific to this festival.”
The procession takes on the figure of the saint to face a chosen member of the local brotherhood who thanks San Sebastian for keeping the city safe and healthy for one more year.
Once the sculpture returns to the interior of the church, a new figure emerges in the crowd outside: the “Vaca-Tora”, a monstrous figure with huge horns and an oversized cowbell that drives away beasts and revelers.